Barney Oldfield: Kind of Speed – Part 3

This is the third installment of a multi-part series on Barney Oldfield, an original king of speed.  Here is Part 1.  This is Part 2.

Barney Oldfield: The Man

Barney was headed for a race at the local Topeka, Kansas track, when he gave a classic interview. In Barney fashion, he started off the interview by announcing that, “I don’t like driving”

“It is too dangerous. I don’t think that I shall be in it longer than this year. Had a man told me in 1904 that I would still be behind goggles at this time this year, I should have pronounced him crazy.”

When asked what he meant, he propounded the following:

“We have to take chances. It always seems that an accident is impending. We never know what will happen. If a man is just right, the element of danger is to a big extent eliminated. But with nerves a little off, with weather conditions so that the dust absolutely precludes vision, you can never tell when the call will come.”

Barney Oldfield liked to dress flashy. The newspaper article notes sparkling precious stones on the lapel of his coat, “the same kind of ornamentation” on his fingers. He also rolled with a crew. Only one was a mechanic, while the others were there purely to “look after the business end” of things. This article reveals an early predisposition to showmanship, a trait that Barney embodied to a fault, throughout his career. In time, his dedication to *the show* would undercut the legitimacy of his talent.

Barney went on racing throughout the 1905 season. He had another close call in August. He escaped a mid-field jaunt with “a badly lacerated scalp and a severely bruised right arm.”

1906 was a quieter racing year. However, he earned $36,000.00 from racing just after the mid-point of the season. Before and in-between his racing obligations, Barney Oldfield even appeared in a play with his former bicycle buddy Tom Cooper. The production was a play about the Vanderbilt Cup—an important road race big enough to draw considerable international talent.

Under Arrest

At the beginning of 1907, Barney was still racing a modified version of his “Green Dragon.” However, his races were increasingly becoming “an act” as you might see upon a stage. Allegations started to fly that his races were pre-arranged.

Peerless Green Dragon, Barney Oldfield.

The Spokane Press, on July 5, 1907, announced, “Auto Racing Fakers Pinched…Barney Oldfield, the automobile racer, was arrested in Portland, Ore., and a warrant got out for his manger, yesterday by the Portland Telegram in the interest of clean sport.”

Barney Oldfield was accused of promoting fake automobile races by a Portland Newspaper. Of course, the newspapers accounts were a bit sensationalized, as was a matter of course in those days. Upon deeper drilling into the actual events, it turns out that Barney Oldfield’s manager had advertised a card of drivers when he knew many of the drivers had no intention to participate in the regional race. In this regard, Oldfield and his manager were charged with “obtaining money by false pretenses.”

He was quickly released on $500 bond. The charges would be dismissed a few days later. However, that is not the whole story. The night following his release on bail, fueled by alcohol, Barney threatened suicide. According to a newspaper report:

“Barney Oldfield, the automobile speed marvel, attempted to commit suicide early this morning. Oldfield attempted to leap from a window of the Portland Hotel. He was restrained only the united efforts of his wife and a detective.”

Enter Ralph De Palma

Of Italian decent, via Brooklyn, Ralph De Palma was born on December 18, 1882. Around four years younger than Oldfield, De Palma, like most of this era, got his start with bicycles. From there, he graduated to cars. Ralph De Palma shows up in the automobile racing record in later 1907 and early 1908. In fact, one of his first big races was against Barney Oldfield in 1908. De Palma managed to beat the legendary Barney on the track in June 1908. According to motorsport historian, William Nolan:

“Furious with himself over his poor showing, Barney stormed off the track without bothering to congratulate the sensitive De Palma. Thus, without any direct violence, a feud was precipitated between the two drivers which persisted, in varying degrees, throughout their careers.”

The Blitzen Benz

The Blitzen Benz, with an enclosed body and a boatish tail, was a very early exercise in auto racing aerodynamics. With some refinement, it eventually boasted 200 chain-driven horsepower. Its 21.5 liter engine sounded like canons, lots of them.

Gripping the grain in his chain-driven monster.

The full story of the cars development is beyond the scope of the present inquiry. In short, Benz developed the car to compete at the 1908 French Grand Prix. The French Grand Prix driver, Victor Hémèry, then took the car to Brooklands (a high-speed banked track, which had recently been built in England).

Living Hard and Setting Records

Meanwhile, alcohol was getting the best of Barney. William Nolan’s account of Barney Oldfield fills in some critical details of how the Blitzen Benz came to be.  He notes:

“Oldfield was living up to his reputation as a prime hell raiser. Scheduled to drive to a meet in Missouri, he disappeared for three full days. Will Pickens (his manager and hype-man) and Bess (his current wife) made the rounds of every saloon and gambling emporium in Kansas City, finally locating Barney at a dive on Main Street. He was out cold—and they put him on a stretcher and carried him to a taxi.”

The next day, Bess and Barney had a heart-to-heart. He confessed he made a fool of himself. According to Barney, his recent antics were precipitated by boredom. His wife asked him what he planned to do. In classic Barney fashion, he declared that he become the world’s fastest man, by breaking the land speed record of 127.5 miles per hour, set by a Stanley Steamer in 1906.

To do this, Oldfield needed a new car. He already had a 120-hp Benz. It just was not fast enough at top speeds. But, Barney had heard of the beastly 200-hp Benz that Hémèry used to set some kilometer (as opposed to mile-based) records at Brooklands.

He contacted the Benz representative in America and arranged a deal to trade in his 120-hp Benz and a fat stack of cash ($6,000.00) for the white 21.5 liter Benz.  There was no mistaking his intentions; he arranged for the 200 horsepower racer to be shipped directly to Daytona Beach.  In those days, before folks ran at the Bonneville salt flats, Daytona Beach was flat, smooth, and most importantly it was long.

Soon enough, the Benz arrived in Daytona Beach and the record attempt was scheduled for the local speed carnival (what we might, today, refer to a “speed week”).

The headline was quite literally true, “Barney Oldfield, Speed Kind of the World: Traveled Faster Yesterday Than Human Being Ever Travelled Before.” After a few warmup runs, including one with his wife Bess, Barney was ready to go. He headed down to the starting point, revved his engine, dropped it into gear, and was off. When all was said and done, Oldfield set the *flying mile* record at 131.7 miles per hour.

Following the race, Barney Oldfield:

“I let the great machine have its head, and for fully a third of the distance the wheels were off the ground while I fought for control. The front wheels were shooting up and down in a weird dance, and I knew that if a tire burst, I would be beyond mortal help. I shot through space until all before me became enshrouded in a dark haze and I approached the verge of unconsciousness. Then I shut her down, knowing I had traveled faster than any other human on the face of the earth.”

When news reached Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm personally telegrammed Barney. He wrote, “I congratulate a daring yankee on so remarkable a performance in a German car.” The excitement was short lived. The A.I.A.C.R., the forerunner to the F.I.A., announced that Barney Oldfield’s only ran the car in one direction. To set a speed record, the governing body determined that the record needed to be an average of two runs in opposite directions, to account for wind and gradients. As a result, you cannot find this attempt listed in official land-speed record annals.

Barney Oldfield: King of Speed – Part 2

This article is the second in a series on Barney Oldfield.  Click here for the first entry.  

The Winton Change

On August 6, 1903, The Minneapolis Journal, and other news sources, announced that Oldfield had signed a contract to race a Winton and to promote Winton cars. As of August 22, 1903, he was on the track racing the Winton Bullett II.

An interesting strain of automotive journalism is the description of the ever-legendary four-wheel-drift. Here, a writer for the San Francisco Californian exclaimed, “Barney Oldfield is one of the most brilliant and daring of automobile racing men, allowing the rear wheels of his machine to skid at the curves in a truly alarming manner.”

Oldfield Driving a Winton Bullett on the beach.

Motorsport scholar William F. Nolan suggests Oldfield’s motivation for switching to a Winton was a matter of money. He was offered $2,500.00, which was solid money in-hand. While Oldfield changed cars a number of times early in his career, he would eventually become a staunch supporter of Firestone tires. He stuck by Firestone tires throughout his career.

Speed is Dangerous.

In August 1903, Barney Oldfield was searching for records to break. He set the three-mile record in Columbus, Ohio at 3:10. Then, he was back at Grosse Pointe. That race, however, was dangerous. A St. Louis paper reports:

“While Barney Oldfield’s racing machine racing automobile was running nearly sixty miles an hour at the Grosse Pointe track this afternoon in the ten-mile open event, one of the front tires on the machine burned through and exploded, throwing the car into the fence and injuring Frank Shearer, a spectator, so terribly that he died in an ambulance en route to the hospital.

The article continues:

“The Car went fifty feet through the air and Oldfield, who kept his seat, had a marvelous escape from death, He received several cuts about the body and had one broken rib.”

At the end of the article, a shocking description introduces the danger of watching motorsports up close.

“Shearer was standing against the fence at this point, and the car struck him squarely, breaking both legs in several places and fracturing his skull. He was thrown seventy-five feet and never recovered consciousness.”

Nolan, in his biography of Barney Oldfield, writes, “Stunned at the news, Barney shook his head. ‘They warned people not to sit on the rail,’ he said. ‘I was afraid something like this might happen. Why didn’t he listen to what they told him?’” Nevertheless, this incident was not enough to dissuade him from racing cars.

A Note on Barney’s Cigar

Barney Oldfield, is almost always photographed chomping on a cigar. The legend goes that Barney cracked a tooth during the race or crash in Detroit that day. Thereafter, he used the cigar as a tobacconated mouth guard and shock absorber.

Barney Oldfield and his usual cigar.

Daytona’s First Speed Week

In Ormand, Florida, W. K. Vanderbilt raced Barney Oldfield for a record on a smooth beach race. According to Nolan, “The affair was held on the 15-mile sweep of Ormond-Daytona’s glass-smooth beach, affording drivers the rare opportunity of full-speed motoring.”

Officially designated the Ferrari 365 GTB/4, the Ferrari Daytona stands as a testament to the reputation of Daytona, Florida for speed. The car is named for Ferrari’s success at the 1967 24 Hours of Daytona. However, the 24 Hours of Daytona, the Daytona 500, and other famous races would never had happened but for the beach at which records were set by Vanderbilt and Oldfield.

Barney Lives Hard

Around this time, Barney had already learned to live hard and live fast. After the speed week event around Daytona, Barney toured a number of other cities, picking up quick cash to feed his increasing hunger for the good life. However, in a moment of desperation, he failed to honor a race commitment. As Nolan notes, Barney Oldfield was called before AAA. Specifically, the chairman of the racing board A.R. Pardington, lectured Oldfield and fined him $100.

The bigger problem for Oldfield was his boss, Alex Winton. Winton would not renew Oldfield’s contract, stating “I won’t have scandal connected with the Winton Automobile. Nevertheless, he was a successful racer and he had options.

As noted above, the Mooers-designed Peerless “Green Dragon” was originally built to be raced at the 1903 Gordon Bennett Trophy Cup in Ireland. It was powered by six-by-six square bore and stroke engine. Immediately, in the seat of the Green Dragon, Oldfield began to slay his competition.

Death at the World’s Fair

The 1904 World’s Fair was America’s chance to show off its industrial advances. Naturally, there was plenty of nearby entertainment. One such attraction was a track near to the grounds of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. On August 29, 1904, the front page of the St. Louis Republic shouted: “Oldfield’s Sixty-Horse-Power Auto Bolts Through Fence Killing Two Men

Prior to the accident, there were four initial events. Then, the accident occurred at the start of the fifth event, a ten-mile race “for big machines.” In 1904, rules and regulations for classes of cars were poorly delineated, as the AAA had just come into formation in the past year or two.

The racers were touted as going “a mile a minute” as though such speed was inherently inhuman. Another driver, A.C. Webb, was in front of Oldfield. The were racing heads up and sliding around the corners of the track. Blinded by the dust in his eyes, Oldfield took the outer line. He got too high toward the outer edge of the track. Then, in a matter of seconds, the accident occurred.

According to the St. Louis Republic, “[Oldfield] ran into and through the fence, and, knocking Scott and Montgomery down, ran fifteen farther to a maple tree, where the machine was demolished by the collision.” He was able to walk from an automobile to the clubhouse where a doctor from Missouri Baptist Sanitarium treated his injuries.

Another account was similar.

“Webb led by twenty yards. He held the middle of the track as he mounted the bank at the turn his machine threw a cloud of dust in the air that obscured both machines from the sight of the 25,000 spectators.”

The article goes on the explain the cause of the accident:

“Oldfield tried to pass Webb at the three-eights pole, and as he found that he was nearing the car in the dust he went to steer around it. He did not realize that the fence was so close on account of the blinding dust, and the machine bolted into it.”

Barney pronounced, as his injuries were examined at the clubhouse, that this would be his last ever race. Both of his parents had attended the race.

The men killed were named John Scott, 48, of Adams St. and Nathan Montgomery, 32, of Lee Avenue. Barney Oldfield was severely injured. Reportedly, 25,000 people were there to watch the race and witnessed the accident, insofar as they could see behind the dust and smoke. “Scott’s son, a manly little fellow of 15 years, cried bitterly as he listened to the story of his father’s death.”

Initially, Barney declared that this would be his very last race. While recovering, at Missouri Baptist Sanitarium (Hospital), he met Bess, his future wife. By November 1904, his tune about racing was changing. In fact, at the beginning of 1905, newspapers were announcing Oldfield’s to racing.

The 1900 Gordon Bennett Cup

It was actually called the Coupe Internationale; however, even at the time, everyone referred to it as the Gordon Bennett Cup.  It ran for several years; the first iteration took place in 1900.  It was, by some reports, a complete failure.  But, this minor overture laid the basic foundation for team-based racing.

Caricature of James Gordon Bennett, Jr.. Capti...
Caricature of James Gordon Bennett, Jr.. Caption read “New York Herald”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Gordon Bennett, a newspaper man, and son of the creator of the New York Herald, was based in Paris.  Since the 1894 Paris to Rouen run, the New York Herald had paid close attention to the burgeoning sport of automobile racing.  Basically, Mr. Gordon Bennett (a hyphen is incorrect) offered a trophy to the Automobile Club de France (A.C.F.).  The trophy, or cup–as it were–offered this trophy to be “competed for under somewhat unusual circumstances.”  In particular, James Gordon Bennett Jr. dictated that the trophy would be competed for and won by the various national auto clubs.  In other words, neither the individual nor the manufacturer would take the honors.  Rather, the honor of the cup was to go to a winning country.  It was Gordon Bennett’s intention to spur automotive innovation by pitting the various national industries against each other.

James Gordon Bennett never attended any of his Coupe Internationales.  In fact, he was not even a big fan of driving.  He was typically known to roll up to his office in a horse-drawn coach.  But, importantly, he did believe that the automobile would transform the landscape.  Living in France, which was also the epicenter of the automobilism movement, Gordon Bennett offered his namesake’s cup to the A.C.F. in October 1899.

By January 1900, the French club had published a series of rules, called the “articles of competition.”  These rules, in and of themselves, are fascinating because they contain the first formalized rules of motorsport.  These rules define everything from the simple construct that the quickest to the finish line wins, to a basic form of parc fermé (generally understood to be the unavailability to modify a vehicle between race sessions).

Before sponsorship, cars were painted in so-called “national colors.”  These colors shifted a bit over time.  For example, Germany switched from white to silver over time (which is its own fascinating story of stripping paint to metal).  The Gordon Bennett Cup started this pre-sponsorship tradition.  The original chosen colors were red for America, white for Germany, yellow for Belgium, and blue for France.

The teams, for the Gordon Bennett Cup, were to be composed of one to three drivers.  The A.C.F. waisted no time in choosing the French Representatives.  The Chevalier René de Knyff received 32 member votes.  Charron received 25 and Girardot was third with 15 votes.  Almost immediately, some members (including possible drivers) were furious.  First, a democratic ballot is necessarily subjective as compared to some sort of tally of race results.  Second, and more importantly, all three selected drivers favored the Panhard et Levassor cars.  However, the Mors cars had been coming on strong since the last half of 1899.  The fallout from the disagreement included a threat by Levegh, Lemaitre, and Giraud to renounce their A.C.F. membership and defect to the competing Belgian club.  The fracas eventually settled.

Organization of the race continued into 1900.  While the A.C.F. had already chosen their drivers, other national clubs through their proverbial hats in the ring but did not specify team members.  England’s national club was conspicuously absent from the international entries.  First, they were focused on their own 1,000-Mile Trial.  Second, they did not actually have any decent race car manufacturers at the time, according to Gerald Rose.

A route was selected.  However, upon measuring the route, it was found to fall too short to be within the recently ratified articles of competition for the G B Cup.  A few tweaks later and it was long enough to pass muster.

Generally, the run up to the competition was plagued by misinformation and disorganization.  The fact that racing had been banned without specific government approval did not help.  There were other problems as well.  Camile Jenatzy’s new Belgian mount was stuck in French customs (which it remained through the date of the actual race, forcing Jenatzy to strip down a touring car of the same make in order to race).  Even Levegh’s recent win at Bordeaux to Periqueux renewed the kerfuffle over the A.C.F. driver selection.

There was serious doubt, even within the organizing A.C.F., as to whether the race would actually occur.  The original date was rescheduled for June 14, 1900.  Some drivers complained there was insufficient notice to prepare there respective cars.  The sole German representative, Eugen Benz, refused to start on these grounds.  However, the real reason he did not start may have been fear that his rear tires were doomed to fail at high speed.  Or, perhaps, it was because his Benz was so slow that his “chance of winning was microscopical.”`

The Race Report

Not unusual for races of this era, the race started just a quarter after 3:00 in the morning.  The entries were: René de Knyff (France), Camille Jenatzy (Belgium), Winton (America), Charron (France), and Girardot (France).  All three French entries did, in fact, end up being Panhard et Levassors.  Winton, the new American, was in a car of his own design.  Jenatzy, the sole Belgian, was stuck in his stripped down Bolide touring car (as his actual racing model remained trapped by French customs for unknown reasons).  Levegh, not chosen by the A.C.F. as an official French entry, raced alongside the others en amateur.

De Knyff and Winton got slow starts.  Girardot and Jenatzy were able to fight for the initial lead.  Just outside of Versailles, Winton’s Winton was in last place.  However, Jenatzy, the original king of the four-wheel-grip-the-grain-all-wheel-drift was already shredding his tires.  Having to replace both rears, he dropped into last place.

English: at the next to a vehicle of his make,...
A 1914 picture of Fernand Charron, the former cyclist, and later car designer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to contemporary reports, at Limours, Girardot was in the lead at 3:49:15.  Charron was second, reaching the checkpoint just under three minutes later.  De Knyff followed only one minute behind.  Winton was in fourth and Jenatzy brought up the rear.  Levegh, the unofficial entry, was 30 minutes ahead of Girardot, the official leader.

At Orléans, roughly the mid-point of the race, things were getting interesting for the competitors.   Charron, for example, was about to give up.  He had badly bent his rear axle in taking a rather ancient drainage ditch (caniveau) too quickly.  However, at Orléans, he was in second and found out that Girardot, the first place runner, had a steering gear in need of immediate repair.   He also found out that de Knyff, was essentially out of the race with a stripped top gear.  Jenatzy and Winton were a long way behind.  Given these facts, Charron soldiered on like a boss (but I’m mixing metaphors again).

I mentioned that Jentazy was way behind.  He had several flat tires, broken spark plugs, and clutch issues–and those were only the start of his issues.  According to Gerald Rose, “vowing that with car troubles, obstreperous gendarmes, dogs, and sheep, he had never in his life driven such a race”.”  Meanwhile, the new American, Winton had bucked a front wheel.  He bowed out just after Orléans, which took him 8:30.00 to reach, compared to the unofficial Levegh’s 5:25.00.

Thus, after Orléans, only Charron and Girardot remained.  But, remember, Charron axle was shot.  Luckily, his riding mechanic (and driver in his own right) Fournier, “staved off disaster by keeping up a steady flow of oil on the chains.”  Girardot was still far behind.  He got lost in Orléans.  This really wasn’t his fault.  By all accounts, this was the result of a poorly organized race.  Also, recall that his steering gear was still giving him problems.

Dogs, in these days of open-road city to city races, were a constant issue.  In his magnum opus, Gerald Rose recounts Charron’s harrowing encounter with a particularly large dog:

The bane of the race were the dogs, and it is said that every single driver killed five or six.  Ten miles before the finish Charron collided with an unusually big St. Bernard when going down hill at nearly sixty miles an hour.  Somehow the dog became wedged between the wheel and the steering arm, completely jamming the steering gear.  The car dashed off the road, across the ditch, between two trees into the neighbouring field, and thence between two more back on to the road, finally coming to rest facing in the direction of Paris, with its two occupants too startles to say anything.  Fournier just got down and re-started the engine, and in a minute the car was speeding on to Lyons as if nothing had happened.

The passage goes on to describe how Fournier had to lean over the edge of the car, in an acrobatic manner, to hold a water pump in place while Charron chugged on to victory.

Lord Montagu called the 1900 Gordon Bennett Cup an “Overture in a Minor Key.”  The crowd at the end of the race confirms this assessment.  The newspapers said there may have been up to 100 people at the finish line.  However, these accounts were a bit generous.  More accurate estimates from the drivers suggest that only about a dozen people were at the finish line to greet Charron on his win.

The final standings were:

  1. Charron (Panhard; 24 HP) 9:09:00 (38.6 mph)
  2. Girardot (Panhard; 24 HP) 10:36:23 (33.4 mph)
  3. De Knyff (Panhard; 24 HP) – (-)
  4. Jenatzy (Bolide; 16 HP) – (-)
  5. Winton (Winton; 14 HP) -(-)

/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com

Sources

“The Gordon-Bennett International Cup Race”, The Motor-Car Journal, 285-287 (June 23, 1900).

The Gordon Bennett Races, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (1965) (Containing some minor discrepancies with the other sources.  As such, I am considering this slightly less reliable than my other, earlier sources).

A Record of Motor Racing: 1894 – 1908, Gerald Rose (1949) (Originally published in 1909).

“The Gordon Bennett International Cup Race” The Horseless Age, Vol. 6 No. 14, p. 14 (1900) (Providing an American perspective on the race).